Scottish society and the Church in the 1540s

The Catholic Church was very powerful in Scotland prior to the Reformation.

Religion was a focal point for daily life of ordinary people in 16th century Scotland.

Being a good Catholic and receiving the blessings offered by the sacraments (religious ceremonies or acts, such as baptism) meant that individuals could achieve salvation (an eternity in heaven).

For years people had given away land and money to the Catholic Church to counter the sins they had committed - Martin Luther thought this practice to be wrong.

The video below gives an insight into the Catholic Church, Pre-Reformation.

In the time of James V, the Church was wealthier than the King. It had an income of around £300,000, while the King had only around £20,000.

The Church owned a great deal of land which it rented out, and it also collected tax from the people.

As a result, monks were wealthy and lived well, while many ordinary people struggled to earn a basic living.

Issues faced by the Catholic Church

The Church was thought to be suffering from a number of problems:

  • Nobles could bribe the Church.
  • Bishops demanded to be sent funds from parishes, so local churches were poor.
  • Priests were often poorly educated and were not always able to preach.
  • Many nuns were poorly educated and nunneries were losing influence.
  • Some clergy had a wife and children - they should have been celibate (unmarried and not having sexual relations with another person).
  • Illegitimate children of the nobility and royalty were given power within the Church.
  • Pluralists collected money from each parish they supervised, which made them wealthy.

Many were not interested in helping their parishes.

Failure at attempts of reform by the Catholic Church

Archbishop John Hamilton of St Andrews passed reforms which increased the authority of bishops, set standards for clergy, and tried to improve buildings.

However, the most serious problem remained at parish level.

Poorer clergy struggled to preach the faith to largely uneducated people.

Many senior clergy continued to take church money to finance luxurious lifestyles.

Protestant ideas had been spreading into Scotland for some time and increased numbers of the nobility chose the new faith. In 1557 a group of Protestant Lords, known as the Lords of the Congregation, united against Mary of Guise and declared their intention of establishing the Reformation in Scotland.

Those who followed Protestantism faced persecution in Scotland – amongst them the young Protestant preacher George Wishart who was burned as a heretic (a non-believer) in 1546.